TRAVERSE CITY — Many times it’s hard to make history relevant to younger generations, but it’s different when the topics include the Civil Rights Era and Martin Luther King Jr., local teachers said.
“There’s a lot of footage and video,” said Ben Zenner, who teaches ninth grade U.S. History at Traverse City’s West Senior High School. “Students engage when they can see the violence in Birmingham, fire-bombed buses and people bleeding and being beaten.”
Students often are stunned to try to comprehend that era and the hatred that spewed from people who blew up buses simply because blacks and whites rode together, he added.
“One big thing my student had trouble wrapping their heads around was understanding that was just the way it was then,” Zenner said.
He attributes that relative astonishment to two reasons: They didn’t grow up in that era; and they grew up in the northern United States.
“Martin Luther King Jr. Day reminds us of the civil rights issue and it gives us time to focus on that,” he said.
Today is the fourth year Traverse City Area Public Schools closed on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday first observed nationwide in 1986.
The TCAPS began closing school on the federal holiday to honor the slain civil rights leader in 2011, after filmmaker Michael Moore offered to raise funds to buy new seats for Lars Hockstad Auditorium in Central Grade School if they did so.
Michigan students are introduced to the histories of slavery, the Civil War, civil rights movement and King in elementary grades as part of state curriculum requirements. In eighth grade, they take a more in-depth look at slavery, while ninth graders dig deeper into the civil rights movement.
On Tuesday, Zenner plans to discuss stereotypes and discrimination. Other upcoming topics will include: the case of Emmet Till, an African-American 14-year-old who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after reportedly flirting with a 21-year-old white woman; the impact of the Supreme Court’s historic 1954 Brown V. Board of Education ruling that declared all school segregation laws unconstitutional across the nation; the Montgomery bus boycotts; the Selma and Birmingham marches the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.
West Middle School teacher Brett Graham said the Internet, computers, online textbooks and forums also quickly pull in students.
“They love technology,” he said. “It’s a great way to engage students, and they learn about technology at the same time.”
In September, Graham devoted the whole 50th anniversary day of King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” to an online forum and class discussion he organized on the school’s computer system. It included editorials and articles about that day and the importance of the speech and online questions and responses from three civil rights experts — Clayborne Carson, an African-American professor of history at Stanford University and director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute; Eleanor Holmes Norton, a non-voting delegate to the United States Congress representing the District of Columbia; and Robert Parris Moses, educator and 1960s civil rights leader.
Class discussions touched on factors that led to discrimination in the criminal justice system, race, poverty, stereotypes and conditions today, as well as the widening gap between the rich and poor, he said. Students also talked about access to education and healthcare and whether education should be a right, and not based on income level.
“It was a great discussion we had that day,” Graham said.
Graham’s history classes focus on slavery laws during that period, why the South found slavery necessary, early abolitionists and President Abraham Lincoln’s stands against slavery.
Elisa Quigley and Ryan Farese, 13, both in Graham’s class, said Martin Luther King Jr. and the federal holiday honoring him are important because King was strong, determined, had vision and never gave up.
“That era changed the perspective of a lot of Americans and people all around the world,” Ryan said.
Mary McKeon-Jacob, who teaches American Sign Language classes at West Senior High, has a unique plan for her students. The class will watch a video of the ‘Dream’ speech and determine English words to describe King’s “big ideas” in it - concepts like freedom, brotherhood, equality, vision, rights, racism, civil rights, vote, march, hope and faith.
She then will show the speech being delivered in ASL, which is a conceptual language, to show how the English word concepts are represented in ASL.
She also will show a video of the Deaf President Now protest in the 1980s on the campus of Gallaudet University, and all-deaf/hard-of-hearing college in Washington, D.C. The students in the video said the demonstration rode the wings of the civil rights movement and gave them the opportunity to “voice” their own needs and wants as a minority. They even borrowed the banner that King carried during the March on Washington.
“My goal is to bring awareness to the day and to the importance of Martin Luther King and the ideas he espoused,” she said. “The day off isn’t what raises awareness. It is a reminder about what was and what it still means today.”